A question a few days ago from one of this blog's visitors regarding the D10 "Postal" Combat Results Table got me to reminiscing about the early days of "play-by-mail" gaming. It was, for those of us who were in the hobby at the time, an interesting, if occasionally frustrating period. And while I don't claim that the personal recollections that I am about to recount regarding this long-past era are totally correct in all of their particulars, they are, nonetheless, accurate enough to satisfy the relaxed requirements of this somewhat whimsical look back at the rise and fall of "postal" gaming.

Double click image to view chart full size and print. A hat tip to Joe Angiolillo for redoing the above chart so that it is actually legible.


A Present in the Mailbox
by Joe Ruiz Grandee, American b 1929

A long, long time ago, before Al Gore invented the Internet (or discovered that there was money to be made lecturing the rest of us about the weather), wargamers who wanted to expand the available pool of opponents beyond their immediate circle of family and friends (and honestly, how many times can you beat your younger brother at D-DAY before he loses interest, anyway?) had only two viable options. On the one hand, they could travel to the small number of sparsely-attended tournament conventions (this was before the advent of "Origins") which — during the "Jurassic" era of wargaming — were usually organized either by the earnest, but affable loons from the Spartan International Competition Society (SICS), or by the somewhat more reality-grounded members of the Avalon Hill International Kriegspiel Society (AHIKS); alternatively, they could try their hand at playing wargames by mail. Attending tournaments was a problem for a lot of us back then because there just weren't all that many of them to start with. Moreover, those that did get past the planning stage — or so it appeared to those of us living on the West Coast — always seemed to end up being hosted at least half a continent away (usually in Baltimore). Under those circumstances, it is probably not surprising that quite a few avid gamers (me included) turned to play-by-mail (PBM) as a less satisfying but cheaper (you could buy an awful lot of stamps for what it cost to trek to a wargame convention) substitute for tournament "chasing". However, inexpensive or not, it turned out that playing wargames by mail, besides being slow (the U.S. Postal Service isn't called "snail mail" for nothing), presented players with a completely new set of problems. Which is to say, once a gamer decided to take up postal competition, successfully tracking down a reliable opponent (a bigger challenge than one might think, in the early days) and actually getting a game started was a bit daunting; particularly because, in the beginning, no one except for those actually involved in the first pioneering efforts to promote PBM play (the aforementioned SICS and AHIKS, augmented by a few independent gamers) seemed especially interested in helping players with this side of the hobby.

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But "all things come to those who wait"; and so it was with play-by-mail wargaming. As might be expected, the boys in Baltimore — in keeping with Avalon Hill's traditional glacier-like reaction time when it came to changes in the hobby that they had helped to create — were, at first, slow to follow up on this budding interest in postal play among their customers. However, proving yet again that "even a blind pig finds an acorn once in awhile", when the evidence became overwhelming that PBM play was not some temporary fad, but was rapidly becoming a staple feature of the wargaming subculture (if, indeed, there actually was one), Avalon Hill finally — beginning in the mid to late sixties — threw its minuscule corporate weight behind this new and financially promising gaming alternative. Having decided to jump in, the first order of business for the Baltimore game publisher was to bring order to the somewhat chaotic PBM game environment by standardizing the grid coordinates of its various titles, since none of the early games had numbered hexes. A number of players, using chess as a model, had come up with their own "home-brewed" griding arrangements, but Avalon Hill regularized the basic system so that everyone was playing with the same game maps. The next thing that the powers at Avalon Hill did was to tap into the commercial end of postal gaming by selling preprinted PBM "Order of Battle" sheets (in tablet form) to complement their early games. [Unfortunately for the gang in Baltimore, the rapid proliferation of office copiers in the 1970's insured that, within a decade of its launch, this lucrative little sideline pretty much went the way of the supermarket "TV tube-tester".] Probably even more important than the useful (but surprisingly expensive) PBM tablets, was the game publisher's decision to allow the (initially) tiny pool of subscribers to its bi-monthly "house organ", The General, to advertise for opponents within its pages.


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Certainly, the contributions of Avalon Hill to postal play, when they finally came, were helpful; there was, however, one additional impediment that still remained to be overcome, even after players had gridded their game maps, acquired their Avalon Hill "Order of Battle" game sheets, and tracked down a postal opponent or two. That was the problem posed by the baked-in need for there to be some way to "remotely" resolve the outcomes of individual PBM battles. And this was, it should be noted, not a trivial issue. After all, wargames were, and are, called "wargames" for a reason: they almost all involve combat which, in turn, relies on some random means of generating combat results. In the case of face-to-face play, this process is easy: the player conducting his or her move (the phasing player, in contemporary parlance) will, once all movement is completed, simply specify the order of any combats to be executed, roll the six-sided die (that came with the game) for each combat, and, as these battles are resolved, cross-reference the resulting die-rolls (one at a time) with the appropriate odds-columns and numerical cells on the game's Combat Results Table (CRT) to determine the actual outcomes of all this "cardboard" mayhem. This process, of course, is easy when one's opponent is able to watch as the die is being rolled for each battle; it is a little more difficult, on the other hand, when one player is in San Diego and the other is in Saint Petersburg. Needless-to-say, as the concept of "postal" play began to gain traction, several different ideas were quickly put forward, from different quarters as possible solutions to this thorny little problem.

The "Honor" System

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The first suggestion to surface, which emanated from the likes of Tom Shaw and Tom Oleso in the early 1960's, was the hopelessly naive "Honor" system. In a nutshell, the panglossian proponents of this approach argued — since the PBM participants were, after all, only playing a recreational game — that attacking players should be content to simply allow their distant (and often faceless) opponents to roll the die on their behalf and then notify the original attackers of the outcomes of their various battles. This hare-brained idea, not surprisingly, went nowhere. The vast majority of gamers, it turned out, were (and still are) an intensely suspicious lot; and, in their almost universal rejection of the "Honor" system, they proved that they were also more than a decade and a half ahead of Ronald Reagan when it came to adopting the motto: "Trust, but verify."

The "Matrix" System

 Opening the campus mailbox
A very different method for tackling this problem, although workable, turned out — in the eyes of quite a few of us — to be a lot more trouble than it was worth. This was the "Matrix" system pioneered by AHIKS. The logic behind this approach was impeccable; it was the cumbersomeness of its execution that was the problem. The key feature of this combat resolution system, not surprisingly, was the multi-cell matrix. These matrices would vary in their cell counts, but for most games, a matrix displaying one hundred individual numbers, each ranging from 1 to 6, would suffice. A typical 10x10 (hundred number) matrix would be set up as follows: across the top of the chart would be a longitudinal series of ten letters, starting with "A" and ending with "J"; running down the side (from top to bottom) would be another (latitudinal) series, this time consisting of the numbers "1" through "10". For the system to work, each player had to procure two identical copies of their own 10x10 charts; one copy would be kept while the other copy was sealed in an envelope and sent to a neutral umpire. For a phasing player to actually resolve his or her combats, the cell coordinates for each battle would have to be listed along with the specifics of the battle, itself; i.e., all adjacent units in 3 to 1 vs. 4th Rifle C9 (+5). Along with the cell coordinates (which could only be used once), a number from "0" to "5" had to be included with the other combat instructions. [This was done just to make sure that a devious opponent, for example, had no incentive to list nothing but "5s" and "2s" in each and every one of the cells of his matrix.] To actually resolve the battle, the defending player would first find the appropriate cell on his matrix, then the number in the cell would be added to that of the value of the integer sent by the attacker. For example, if the number in the cell was "4" and that sent by the attacker was "5", the defender would then perform the following short computation: 4+5=9-6=3; which, in this instance, shows that "3" was the actual die roll. Needless-to-say, besides being both tedious and time consuming, this process was also highly vulnerable, unbelievable though it might seem, to mathematical errors. And this could be a major problem because the different copies of the matrices were not exchanged and inspected by the two opposing players until after the conclusion of the last game turn. Human frailty being as common as it is, it is not difficult to see why this procedure repeatedly led to "scrapped" games because of mistakes in simple arithmetic. Although AHIKS persevered with this ponderous combat resolution system for years, most of the rest of us couldn't wait for a less-complicated substitute to come along, and sure enough, it wasn't very long before one did.

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THE NYSE Stock Sales System

The third method of PBM combat resolution would probably never have come into use if its predecessors had not been so unsatisfactory. As already noted, the "Honor" approach to die-rolling was, for obvious reasons, out of the question for everyone except, perhaps, for Tom Oleson or Nelson Mandela, and, just as clearly, the "Matrix" system was both too error-prone and too awkward for the majority of non-AHIKS players. So, given that neither of these approaches really worked all that well, the question on most postal wargamers' minds was: what actually would? Which is to say, what kind of relatively simple-to-use (and inexpensive: most of us, after all, were students in those days) mechanism was there, already widely available, that could reliably generate hundreds, if not thousands, of tamper-proof random numbers day after day. The answer to this question, happily both for Avalon Hill and for a growing fraternity of PBM players, turned out to have literally been lying on most people's doorstep from the very beginning; and that was: the New York Stock Exchange stock reports that could be found in the financial sections of virtually every daily newspaper in the country. This idea, in its own way, was a major breakthrough. The key to this system lay with the information on stock transactions transmitted by the NYSE to the wire services at the end of each trading day. These reports, which covered virtually every individual security traded on the NYSE, listed the high and low prices for every stock traded on the exchange; they also reported the sales volume, in hundreds of thousands of shares, for those same stocks. Assuming players stuck to those stocks reported with large numbers of daily transactions, this "sales in hundreds" tabulation was a perfect mechanism for generating random numbers. 
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Thus, it seemed that the Monday through Friday NYSE documentation of America's capitalist activity, so far as the usual PBM issues were concerned, was the perfect answer to the postal players' combat resolution conundrum. It did, however, present a couple of problems of its own. First, because not all local newspapers went to press at the same time — there was, remember, the pesky issue of different U.S. Time Zones — some papers published the NYSE stock reports prior to the actual close of that day's trading. This meant that the "sales in hundreds" figures in one player's local newspaper might not match those printed in his or her opponent's community paper. Needless-to-say, this was a problem. Happily for all concerned, the solution turned out to be relatively easy: it was to require the use of a single national publication that, it was assumed, would present uniform reporting from one end of the country to the other; and the national publication that best fit this description, not surprisingly, was "The Wall Street Journal" (WSJ). Better still, since virtually every library in the country already subscribed to the "Journal", the penniless (all of our extra money was already going to buy new games, after all) members of the PBM proletariat, assuming that they could get to a library, didn't even have to actually buy newspapers to check their combat results.

The Birth of the D10 "Postal" CRT

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However, no sooner had the idea of the stock market "sales in hundreds" combat resolution system been put forward than another problem reared its ugly head. This one had to do not so much with the "Journal's" mechanism for generating tamper-proof random numbers as with the numbers themselves. The problem was both simple and obvious. In face-to-face play, the phasing player's battles — as already noted — were typically resolved using a six-sided die and a Combat Results table that was designed around the numerical values ("1" through "6") possible with that die. Unfortunately, the last number in a stock's "sales in hundreds" WSJ entry could be anything from "1" to "0" (10). This was a trifle inconvenient to those players who had originally hoped to precisely match the distribution of combat outcomes found on the "standard" D6 Avalon Hill Combat Results Table in the new postal system; regrettably, it was clear — even to the arithmetically-challenged members of the gaming community — that ten was not evenly divisible by six. [Which, by the way, was not nearly the problem that many postal gamers initially made it out to be: a fact that will shortly become abundantly clear.] Nonetheless, the popular consensus among PBM players was to forge ahead and to create a new (ten-based) D10 "Postal" Combat Results Table that could be used in lieu of the standard Avalon Hill D6 version whenever postal games were played. Thus it was that, thanks to the efforts of an unknown and unsung designer (probably Tom Shaw), the D10 "Postal" CRT at last came into being sometime around 1964. And, interestingly enough, once its final form had been settled on, it was instantly (no hesitation on the part of the boys in Baltimore this time around) copyrighted by Avalon Hill. Still, all was not perfectly harmonious in "River City". The D10 and the D6 Combat Result Tables, although similar, were, and are, different enough that the introduction of the D10 CRT (and its formal endorsement by Avalon Hill) actually generated a modest amount of controversy within the hobby. And that controversy — unfortunately for those of us who liked the new CRT — did not diminish with the passage of time.

The main reason for this ongoing kerfuffle was that the D10 CRT was slightly more "attacker-friendly" than its predecessor (a fact that becomes obvious the minute the two tables are laid side-by-side); hence, while some "traditionally-inclined" players disliked the changes it made to the distribution of combat outcomes; to other players, its modest rejiggering of combat results in favor of the attacker was actually considered to be a plus. This is because, for quite a few face-to-face and PBM players, the old D6 CRT was perceived as just a bit too skewed in favor of the defender; hence, for many of us, the minor adjustments in the distribution of combat outcomes in the D10 CRT were a welcome correction to what we saw as the "standard" CRT's baked-in "pro-defender" bias. Welcome or not, however, it was a correction that would not long survive the assaults of its critics.

The Return of the "Original" D6 CRT

1960's U.S. letter carrier
If the dictates of simple arithmetic were the initial impetus behind the D10 "Postal" Combat Results Table, they were also its undoing. The problem — which many of us recognized from the outset — was that the D10 CRT was, in reality, an artful solution to a nonexistent problem. That being said, it wasn't long before a growing chorus of the D10 table's critics — who, inconveniently for the rest of us, had apparently mastered the mysteries of "long division" — pointed out that to convert a base-ten integer to a base-six integer, it was only necessary to divide the former by the latter; the "remainder", if there was one, would inevitably yield a value of "1" to "6" ("0", in this case, counting as "6"). Those of us who actually preferred the D10 table quickly countered this argument by pointing out that requiring players to divide large (often, very large) numbers by six opened up the possibility of mathematical error; and we all knew the problems that simple addition and subtraction had created with the "Matrix" system. Not willing to be outmaneuvered on this front, the anti-D10 forces responded by pointing out that the main source of the problem with the "Matrix" approach was not really the occasional mistake by a careless player; but, instead, it was the fact that errors of this sort — because the two players could not review each others' Combat Resolution Charts on a regular basis — were concealed until a game was finished. And since, in the case of the D6 "Division" method, the attacker could always check the defender's arithmetic immediately, the "Matrix" argument simply did not apply. This last argument was enough to convince Tom Oleson who, in turn, persuaded the editor of The General to publish his article on this system in the Nov-Dec 1974 Vol. 11, No. 4 issue. Back in 1971, Avalon Hill had issued its most complete guidelines, up to that point, for PBM play. At the time, this little booklet pretty much had the authority of a Papal "Bull"; particularly since it covered a number of different PBM issues including postal combat resolution. Shortly after Oleson's article, the PBM Guidelines were reprinted, but this time with the stipulation that, henceforth, the "Division" system, used in concert with the original D6 CRT, was to be the only "authorized" method for resolving postal combats. This unequivocal declaration, by Avalon Hill, more or less ended the D10 CRT's ten year reign as the CRT of choice in the realm of postal play, and, except for a small band of "partisan" hold-outs, it largely faded from the popular gaming scene after 1974.


Bruno Sinagaglio
If the official Avalon Hill Play-by-Mail Guidelines published more than forty years ago pretty much eliminated the D10 Combat Results Table as a feature of most regular play, it did not succeed in completely quashing its use. Interestingly but not that surprisingly, a few grognards, by mutual consent, continued to use the D10 table both in their face-to-face and in their PBM games long after it had officially passed from the popular gaming scene. And so things puttered along, decade after decade. Then, a few years ago, the old base-ten CRT made a minor comeback of sorts when Bruno Sinagaglio (may his tribe prosper and his flocks increase) resurrected the D10 "Postal" Combat Results Table as a play-balance option for the WATERLOO players participating in the Grognard "PreCon" event that he runs every year at the WBC Convention in Lancaster. The widespread acceptance by both the old and new participants in Bruno's annual celebration of the early days of wargaming has led many of us to believe that, while the D10 CRT is probably never going to supplant the traditional Avalon Hill D6 CRT in regular competition, it just might (thanks to Bruno) have gained a new lease on life when it comes to classic titles like WATERLOO, STALINGRAD, and D-DAY. Of course, only time will tell; but for those of us who prefer the D10 "Postal" Combat Results Table to the "standard" D6 version, the portents of things to come are at least promising.


  • I don't know if dice making technology was any different back in the 60s (or earlier), or if it was just tradition dating back to Roman times (or earlier), but I never understood why a d6, with its finite set of results, was preferable to a d10. Or, better yet, a d100, especially in stats-based games like "B-17: Queen of the Skies".

  • Greetings Preston:

    I not sure, but I think that the six-sided die dated back to the Sumerians, for whom "6" was an important number. There is also, of course, the issue of technology. When you're carving your dice by hand, it stands to reason the at the more facets, the more difficulty in achieving anything approaching uniformity. This, needless-to-say, was not a trivial issue as dice were used primarily in "games of chance" as well as in recreational table games like backgammon and latrunculi.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • How long have multi-sided dice been in existence? I can remember them in the late 70s (D&D of course), but what about before that?

  • Greetings Again Preston:

    Technologically speaking, there would have been no reason for game companies (and others, for that matter) not to have made use of eight-sided or ten-sided dice by the sixties, at the latest. Precision machining (to create the molds) dated all the way back to the Second Industrial Revolution, and the extensive substitution of formed "plastics" for other more traditional materials can be traced to the decade following the Second World War. Certainly, by the late-fifties, the vacuum-mold process for manufacturing plastic products had become well-established. So there would have been no technological barrier to the mass-production of different types of dice by this period at the very latest.

    I think, when everything is said and done, that the main obstacle was probably nothing more than a lack of imagination on the part of early designers. I can remember any number of early games that included multiple (and sometimes multi-colored) six-sided dice; but like you, I cannot recollect any that made use of differently faceted dice until the appearance of the first Role-Playing-Games (RPGs) in the early seventies.

    I suppose that in this case, the weight of literally thousands of years of custom and tradition simply blinded game designers and novelty companies -- until the arrival on the scene of Gary Gygax and company -- to the many possiblities that alternatives to the standard six-side die might offer. I can think of no other reason, given the facts.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • The attacker half elim at 2-1 is interesting, in that it was a result that didn't exist on the original AH classic CRT. Was there any further description of its application? It seems pretty clear that it involves eliminating half of the attacking factors. But, without any accompanying retreat, it is the only result that would leave the attacker adjacent to the defender.

  • Greetings Anon:

    Your question underscores a long-festering debate within the "Grognard" community. As it turns out, the 2-1 "1/2 Attacker Elim" result was and still is played -- depending on the preferences of individual players -- both with an accompanying "Attacker Retreat" result and without. However, I should note that quite a few current players seem to lean towards the inclusion of the AR as part of this particular combat result (probably because its absence tends to strengthen the attacker in games like WATERLOO and STALINGRAD).

    Best Regards, Joe

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